By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

The state’s prison system has seen many changes since its inception in the early 1850s – especially in the realm of rehabilitation. Gone are the days of pounding rocks in a granite quarry. Today’s offenders can learn computer programming and web design to help them land decent-paying jobs when they’re released. They can also earn degrees and high school diplomas, increasing their chances of being hired. This is the third part in a series on the history of rehabilitation, taking a closer look at the department’s evolving efforts to rehabilitate offenders.

Learning the value of hard work

In the early part of the 20th century, with the popularity of the automobile on the rise, the need for passable roads became a priority for the state.

“The first crews of the State prison inmates to be put to work will be drawn from San Quentin, on requisitions already filed with the State Board of Prison Directors. The first work will be on strips of highway in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, one being from Cummings to the south fork of the Eel River, 33 miles in Mendocino County, and the other from Miranda to Garberville, 15 miles in Humboldt County,” reported the Press Democrat, June 16, 1915. “Three camps of 60 men each will start the work. … Each camp will consist of a working force, a policing force and a camp, or cooking force. … The plan does not contemplate a haphazard selection of men for the trials. Men will be selected who can be trusted.”

Eel River, circa 1930s.

“Forty convicts left San Quentin prison (on Sept. 20) on special cars for Westport, Mendocino County, to be put to work on the state highway. They were accompanied by six guards, three of whom will remain with them in camp. This is in accordance with an act passed by the last legislature authorizing the use of convict labor on the state highway. The state highway commission will have charge of the work. The men chosen for the road work are the picked men of the prison, chiefly men who have families and property. They will get extra credits and will be enabled to reduce their sentences materially,” reported the Sacramento Union, Sept. 21, 1915.

Early in the camp program, the rehabilitative effects were recognized.

“Governor pardons worker on highway,” states the headline in the Sacramento Union, April 27, 1916. “William Wilson, sentenced to serve 10 years in San Quentin on Aug. 4, 1913, by the Superior Court of Contra Costa County for manslaughter, was pardoned yesterday by Governor Johnson because he had been an exemplary prisoner. … Wilson first attracted the attention of the prison officials while working at the experimental highway camp in southern Humboldt County. He won the confidence of his overseers.”

The deciding judge and the prosecuting district attorney joined forces “in asking executive clemency for the prisoner.”

“Fifteen convicts from San Quentin prison were sent to Humboldt this week to join the 117 others working on the highway in that county. The men are all anxious to be sent to do this work, as it gives them freedom from the prison walls and also shortens the time of their imprisonment ,” reported the Healdsburg Enterprise, Sept. 6, 1919.

“Plans are underway to … hasten California’s road program by putting convicts to work as speedily as possible,” reported the Madera Tribune, Jan. 18, 1928. “The work will begin with operations on the Cambria-San Simeon section in April with 125 men in the camp.”

In April, the first inmates were transferred to the new work camp near Monterey.

“Forty prisoners of San Quentin were taken to the prison camp at Monterey to work on the highway between Carmel and San Simeon. They were the first quota of nearly 1,000 who will work on the roads as soon as quarters are ready,” according to a United Press Dispatch, April 17, 1928.

In the early 1940s, the state began using inmates to help fight fires, according to the Madera Tribune, July 24, 1942.

“One hundred San Quentin prison convicts today left under the escort of three guards to fight fires in the Coalinga district. They will work with the U. S. forestry service. The first experimental group from the prison aided in curbing fires in the Bakersfield area three weeks ago,” the paper reported.

Some institutions, such as California Institution for Men, sought to teach inmates skills they could use when released. Most people resided in the rural parts of the state and the influx to cities was not yet in full swing. At the time, California’s economy was based more on agriculture.

“A combination of business and pleasure took the Seibert Lee Seftons on a five-day trip to Southern California. They drove down with Warden Clinton Duffy as he and Sefton were due at the board of directors meeting at the Chino prison,” according to Sausalito News, May 6, 1943. “This is a model prison for men only and provides instruction in agriculture as a rehabilitation program. The prisoners are mostly first offenders and do not live in cells but instead have regular dormitories. Horses from the Hearst ranch are sent to the Chino prison for the men to break. The ‘farm’ is set in a beautiful countryside with Mt. Baldy in the distance.”

Education for a better future

Rehabilitation through education was an early goal of the department.

“By sponsoring education, (San Quentin) has led in the rehabilitation of men and women,” reported the Madera Tribune, Oct. 5, 1931. Women were still housed at San Quentin at the time.

“Of its 4,500 inmates, approximately 4,000 are enrolled for some study. The prisoner may choose the trade or subject and from the first is taught to look forward to the time when he can assume a proper place in the world.”

A classroom at San Quentin, undated.

San Quentin was also the first prison school to be placed on the U.S. Navy’s accredited list, according to the newspaper.

“The prison also has the first building within prison walls ever to be used solely for educational purposes,” the paper reported. “No prison in the world has a lower percentage of men sent back, or can show so many discharged inmates who ‘go straight.’”

University of California, Berkeley, promoted plans to create a college inside San Quentin in the 1960s.

“Establishment of a prison college at San Quentin – the first higher education facility in the history of penology and criminal rehabilitation – is the goal of a University of California project financed by the Ford Foundation. Joseph D. Lehman, Dean of the School of Criminology at the University’s Berkeley campus, will direct a research and development effort in cooperation with the California Department of Corrections and the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C. The initial inquiry, said Dean Lohman, is designed to plan a four-year accredited college at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. Dean Lohman, internationally known authority on criminology, said ‘… the prison college should produce a responsible citizen who understands himself and his relationship and obligations to society.’ The preliminary study, funded by a Ford Foundation grant of $99,200, will delve into the questions of administration, faculty, site location, inmate admission standards, curriculum, and interagency cooperation. … Dean Lehman sees the prison college as benefiting not only the inmate, the correctional institution, and the academic community, but society itself,” reported the Coronado Eagle and Journal, Feb. 24, 1966.

In the 1970s, a focus was once again placed on education.

“Donald L. Stewart is graduating from Sacramento City College. That might not sound like earth-shattering news except for the fact that Stewart is doing time in Folsom prison,” reported The Pony Express, May 27, 1971. “Stewart has been receiving his education with the help of City College instructors who are teaching classes at the prison on Saturday mornings.”

Stewart was “the first City College graduate to complete his college work while in prison,” the newspaper reported. “The program of teaching inmates at the prison has been in progress for about four years and is being sponsored by the State of California.”

Robert O’Brien, another inmate, worked in prison hospitals for six years but was interested in opening more doors through a college education.

“Men should be aware, not only in hospital work, but in any chosen area (that) training is available from which they can leave prison to begin a career both productive and meaningful. When anyone says it can’t be done, just try a little harder,” O’Brien told the newspaper.